The Euro area has an inflation problem that the ECB ignores

by Shaun Richards

Yesterday brought us up to date with the thoughts of ECB President Christine Lagarde as she gave evidence to the European Parliament, and grim reading and listening it made.

After a contraction in GDP of 3.8% in the first quarter of the year, our new staff projections see it shrinking by 13% in the second quarter. Despite being expected to bounce back later in the year and recover some of its lost ground, euro area real GDP is now projected to fall by 8.7% over the whole of 2020, followed by growth of 5.2% in 2021 and 3.3% in 2022.

The numbers for 2021 and 22 are pure fantasy of course an area where President Lagarde has quite a track record after her claims about Greece and Argentina. But the fundamental polnt here is of a large and in many ways unprecedented fall in this quarter.

Germany

We have received some hints this morning via the April trade figures for the Euro areas largest economy Germany.

WIESBADEN – Germany exported goods to the value of 75.7 billion euros and imported goods to the value of 72.2 billion euros in April 2020. Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that exports decreased by 31.1% and imports by 21.6% in April 2020 year on year.

In a pandemic it is no surprise that trade is hit harder than economic output or GDP and the impact was severe.

That was the largest decline of exports in a month compared with the same month a year earlier since the introduction of foreign trade statistics in 1950. The last time German imports went down that much was in July 2009 during the financial crisis (-23.6%).

This meant that the German trade surplus which is essentially the Euro area one faded quite a bit.

The foreign trade balance showed a surplus of 3.5 billion euros in April 2020. That was the lowest export surplus shown for Germany since December 2000 (+1.7 billion euros). In April 2019, the surplus was 17.8 billion euros. In calendar and seasonally adjusted terms, the foreign trade balance recorded a surplus of 3.2 billion euros in April 2020.

In itself that is far from a crisis as both Germany and the Euro area have had plenty of surpluses in this area. But it will be a subtraction to GDP although some will be found elsewhere.

exports to the countries hit particularly hard by the corona virus pandemic dropped sharply from April 2019: France (-48.3%), Italy (-40.1%) and the United States (-35.8%).

So for the first 2 countries the falls will be gains although of course they will have their own losses.

There was a considerable decline in German imports from France (-37.3% to 3.5 billion euros) and Italy (-32.5% to 3.2 billion euros).

So we have a sharp impact on the economy although we need the caveat that these compete with retail sales to be the least reliable numbers we have.

Inflation

If we return to President Lagarde there was also this.

The sharp drop in economic activity is also leaving its mark on euro area inflation. Year-on-year HICP inflation declined further to 0.1% in May, mainly due to falling oil prices. Looking ahead, the inflation outlook has been revised downwards substantially over the entire projection horizon. In the baseline scenario, inflation is projected to average 0.3% in 2020, before rising slightly to 0.8% in 2021, and further to 1.3% in 2022.

There are serious problems with inflation measurement right now and let me explain them.

The HICP sub-indices are aggregated using weights reflecting the household consumption expenditure patterns of the previous year.

This is clearly an issue when expenditure patterns have changed so much. This is illustrated by the area highlighted by President Lagarde oil prices as we note automotive fuel demand was down 46.9% on a year ago. So she is being very misleading. Also I am regularly asked about imputed rent well it has plenty of company right now.

The second principle means that all sub-indices for the full ECOICOP structure will be compiled even when for some categories no products are available on the market. In such cases prices do not exist and they should be replaced with imputed prices.

So if you cannot get a price you make it up. You really could not er make it up…..

Also online quotes are used if necessary. That reflects reality but there is a catch as the prices are likely to be lower than store prices in more than a few cases.

What you might think are minor issues can turn into big ones as we saw last year from a rethink of the state of play concerning package holidays in Germany.

In the following years, the impact of the revision is smaller, between -0.2 and +0.3 p.p. Consequently, the euro area all-items annual rates are revised between 0.0 and +0.3 p.p. in 2015 and between -0.1 and +0.1 p.p. after.

Yes it did change the overall number for the Euro area which is I suppose a case f the mouse scaring and moving the elephant. This really matters when we are told this.

 the deteriorating inflation outlook threatening our medium-term price stability objective.

So we got this in response to a number which is dodgy to say the least.

The Governing Council last Thursday decided to increase the amount of the pandemic emergency purchase programme (PEPP) by an additional €600 billion to a total of €1,350 billion, to extend the net purchase horizon until at least the end of June 2021, and to reinvest maturing assets acquired under the programme until at least the end of 2022.

In context there is also this from Peter Schiff which raises a wry smile.

ECB Pres. Christine Lagarde claims that emergency action is necessary to protect Europeans from a mere 1.3% rise in their cost of living in the year 2022. Lagarde said such a small rise is inconsistent with the ECB’s goal of price stability. Prices must rise more to be stable.

George Orwell must wish he had put that in 1984, although to be fair his themes were spot on. He would have enjoyed how Christine Lagarde sets as her objective making people worse off.

The ECB measures will continue to be crucial in supporting the return of inflation towards our medium-term inflation aim after the worst of the crisis has passed and the euro area economy begins its journey to economic recovery.

Let’s face it even the (wo)man on Mars will probably be aware that these days wages do not necessarily grow faster than prices.

Comment

Let me now spin around to the real game in town for central bankers which is financial markets. Once they had helped the banks by letting them benefit from a -1% interest-rate which of course will in the end be paid by everyone else then boosting asset markets is the next game in town. I have already mentioned the large sums being invested to help governments borrow more cheaply with the 1.35 trillion. As a former finance minister Christine Lagarde can look forwards to being warmly welcomed at meetings with present finance ministers. After all Germany is being paid to borrow and even Italy only has a ten-year yield of 1.42% in spite of having debt metrics which are beginning to spiral.

Next comes equity markets where the Euro Stoxx 50 index was at one point yesterday some 1000 points higher than the 2386 of the 19th of March. The link from all the QE is of portfolio shifts as for example bonds providing less ( and in many cases negative income) make dividends from shares more attractive. As an aside this poses all sorts of risks from pensions investing in wrong areas.

But my main drive is that central banks can push asset prices higher but the problem is that the asset rich benefit but for everyone else there is them inflation. The inflation is conveniently ignored as those responsible for putting housing inflation in the numbers have been on a 20 year holiday. As even the ECB confesses that sector makes up a third of consumer spending you can see again how the numbers are misleading. Or to put it another way how the ordinary person is made worse off whilst the better off gain.